The Scientist in the Crib Preface

Scientists and cribs? We wrote this book to show that scientists, cribs and children do belong together.

For the last thirty years, scientists like us have been looking in cribs, playpens, nurseries and preschools. There have been hundreds of rigorous scientific studies that tell us how babies and young children think and learn. These studies have revolutionized our ideas about babies and young children, and about the nature of the human mind and brain. They have also helped answer profound and ancient philosophical questions. We can learn as much by looking in the crib and the nursery as by looking in the petri dish or the telescope. In some ways, we learn more--we learn what it means to be human.

In this book, we tell the story of the new science of children's minds. That story should be important to everyone who is interested in the mind and the brain. It's a central part of the new discipline called cognitive science. Cognitive science has united psychology, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, and neuroscience. New scientific insights often come from unexpected and even humble places, and some of the most important insights in cognitive science have come from the crib and the nursery. Understanding children has led us to understand ourselves in a new way.

Scientists and children belong together in another way, too. The new research shows that babies and young children know and learn more about the world than we could ever have imagined. They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments. Scientists and children belong together because they are the best learners in the universe. And that means that ordinary adults also have more powerful learning abilities than we might have thought. Grown-ups, after all, are all ex-children and potential scientists.

We hope this book will demonstrate that scientists and cribs belong together in still other ways. Parents are deeply, even passionately interested in children, or at least in their children. But parents find that their interest in children is treated differently than their interest in science. Books about science assume that their readers are serious, knowledgeable, intelligent, sophisticated adults who simply want to know about the things they care about. But books about babies and children are almost all books of advice-- how-to books. It's as if the only place you could read about evolution was in dog-breeding manuals, not in Steven Jay Gould; as if, lacking Stephen Hawking's insights, the layman's knowledge of the cosmos was reduced to "How to find the constellations." How-to books can be enormously useful, but they shouldn't be the only place parents can learn about something they care about as much as they care about children.

We hope this book will help fill that gap. The science of baby's minds should hold a special fascination for people who live with babies and young children every day. The picture of children that emerges is at once surprisingly familiar and surprisingly unfamiliar. Parents who read this book should find themselves both feeling the shock of recognition and the shock of the new.

There is yet another reason why scientists and cribs belong together. Everyone should be interested in understanding children because the future of the world, quite literally, depends on them. Recently there has been more and more recognition of that fact. But getting public policies about children right depends on getting the science right. The political sound-bites and op-ed page pieces are inevitably simplified. If citizens and voters are going to make the right political decisions about children, they need to understand what science tells us (and what it doesn't).

In writing this book we've faced the usual problems of scientists trying to explain their research. Science is elegant and orderly. But it is also messy, noisy, complicated and invariably embroiled in controversies and debates. We've tried to present what we think are the most interesting experiments, conclusions, ideas and speculations; but we couldn't possibly reflect the entire field in all its diversity and complexity. We've tried to indicate when we are talking about our own views and when we're talking about ideas that are generally accepted in the field, and to indicate the many questions that remain unanswered.